If you have occasion to take the Elizabeth line from one of the Ealing stations you will soon pass a large area of London that might come as something of a surprise to you. Old Oak Common is slowly being turned into what the Government likes to call “a new super-hub set to be the best-connected and largest new railway station ever built in the UK”.
It’s almost certainly the biggest building site in Europe, and the first time I saw it it reminded me of Texas. All of it. And not in a good way either. Old Oak Common seems to go on forever; it is so big, it seems, that it can almost certainly be seen from space. Well, it can at the moment, while it is still there.
This bewilderingly labyrinthine monstrosity is meant to be the London hub of the greatest white elephant of our generation: HS2 (a project on which £20 billion has apparently already been spent, with no end in sight). The station will have 14 platforms, a mix of six high-speed and eight conventional service platforms, with an 850 metre-long station box, large enough to fit 6,300 Routemaster buses inside. If you read the hyperbolic PR guff you would think they were building an international space station, not the terminus of the most unwanted, unaffordable, most contested railway line in the country.
I’ve never been a fan of HS2, as I’ve always been convinced that instead of encouraging Londoners to seek out those parts of the country that sit quite happily above Watford Gap, it’s simply going to encourage people who live and work in the North to move here, turning London into even more of a city state. It will encourage division. It’s obvious: HS2 will not level up the North but rather inflate house prices so much in London that it will become even more of a two-speed capital. Two-speed country, two-speed city.
Last week we learned that the folly faces another trim, while there is even talk that it won’t be finished at all. If you were in any doubt as to the fortunes of the proposed high-speed rail network, all you need to do is seek out a copy of this year’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) Report. This is an annual compendium, compiled by a body of experts, of those government projects that are enthusiastically announced but not always finished. And HS2 is currently on its “fail” list. This year the report lists 250 projects, colour coding them according to the likelihood of their completion. Many are green, many more are amber (for those projects “requiring management attention”) and some, predictably, are red. And HS2 is currently so fire engine red it would make a fairly convincing Charlotte Tilbury lipstick. In the parlance of the IPA, red means “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable” and that “there are major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable.”
So not a biggie, then.
Having been involved in my fair share of launches in the past, I know what it feels like to find yourself with a turkey on your hands. One company I worked for spent upwards of £90 million on a magazine that didn’t last a year (the launch issue came in its own box, prompting one publishing rival to say, “Look, you can bury it”). But I don’t know anyone who has spent £20 billion on something that might not ever see the light of day.
While I’m not suggesting that your life is so empty that you might want to purchase your own copy of the IPA report, the findings do suggest that it might be a good time for the Government to cut its losses and run. Back- of-a-fag-packet estimations put the current final cost of delivery of HS2 to be north of £120 billion, which, it has to be said, is a hell of a lot of hospitals. Jesus, it’s a hell of a lot of anything.
Go and take a look at what your £20 billion has bought you so far. Take a packed lunch, jump on the Lizzy line and spend some time around Old Oak Common. Let me tell you: it’s not going to restore your faith in human nature. Or, indeed, this Government’s ability to organise a knees-up in a beer garden.